Senior Living Q&A;: Your brain needs exercise too

My friend recently heard you speak about brain fitness at Verdugo Hills Hospital. I wasn’t able to be there. Could you summarize what you said?

First of all, brain fitness is closely integrated with body fitness. Healthy nutrition and physical exercise are good for your brain, as well as your body.

As we age, all body systems slow down and become less efficient, including thinking and problem-solving. The speed of learning and recall decreases, so it may require more time to learn new things and/or retrieve information.

Many changes in memory are due to problems with attention, rather than the lack of retention. Distractions are more difficult to ignore and interruptions may cause forgetfulness. The ability to divide attention among several different activities is more difficult.

Doing easy things isn’t exercising your brain. You need to have a challenge. We have all heard that doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku is good for our brains. That is true, but you need to try other kinds of games as well. The three key principles to training our brains are novelty, variety and constant challenge. It’s similar to cross-training our bodies. Here are some examples of things we can do to exercise our brain:

Start a new hobby.

Take a class.

Learn a foreign language.

Interact with others socially.

Do word games.

Play card games.

Thrive on learning and mental challenges.

Learn something new every day.

Explore, travel, or try new things close to home.

Pay attention and be an active learner, focus on new information and minimize or tune out distractions.

Laugh often. It stimulates all sorts of good chemicals in your brain.

Practice thinking positively about the future so that you look forward to every new day.

Paper-and-pencil games are good, but computer games are preferred, since they become increasingly challenging as we move through the levels. Just surfing the Internet is good for the brain because we are taking in and processing new information. Computer games are able to challenge different parts of our brains. Remember, when you try out a game, ask yourself if it challenges you, or if it will become easy once you learn it.

Various types of games are able to improve your concentration and ability to avoid distractions, develop your verbal fluency (help in finding those words that are on the tip of your tongue), exercise your brain’s ability to process information and therefore improve a wide variety of skills including driving, and enhance your spatial recall, which helps you to locate objects you have misplaced.

Computer games do not take the place of maintaining good brain health with good nutrition, exercise, stress management and social stimulation. Computer games supplement a well-balanced lifestyle. Remember, “novelty, variety and constant challenge.”

NANCY TURNEY received a bachelor's degree in social work and a certificate in gerontology. If you have a specific question you would like answered in this column, email it to or call Turney at the Crescenta-Cañada YMCA, (818) 790-0123, ext. 225.

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